Pre-Rhinebeck Untangling: Daughter of a Shepherd

A light-skinned woman with red glasses and a blue shirt with brown fleece.

Rachel Atkinson of Daughter of a Shepherd © Richard Jung

This is the second in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Untangled, taking place from October 15-24, 2021. Tickets are now available!

For those of us who are excited about breed-specific, naturally-colored yarns, Daughter of a Shepherd is a must to add to your stash. Run by Rachel Atkinson, who is the literal daughter of a shepherd, the small UK-based operation celebrates natural black fleece in yarn as well as accessories, such as stunning tweed pouches by Julia Billings of Woollenflower, based in Scotland, and supports British shepherds and yarn producers.

Rachel will be participating in our online show in October, with a virtual shopping session taking place on Sunday, October 17 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

The story of Daughter of a Shepherd begins with the clip of the Hebridean sheep shepherded by your father. What led to you starting your yarn business?

I had been working in the yarn industry for a few years, initially at Loop in London before leaving to pursue my other job as a technical editor and book editor for various knitting and crochet publishers so was fully immersed in the yarn world. On a visit to see Dad he showed me the cheque received from the British Wool Board which represented 10% of the final value they would receive for the previous year’s clip. The cheque was for 94p (£0.94) meaning the final total would be £9.40 for approximately 300 fleeces giving each fleece a value of just 3p (£0.03).

As a knitter I would have loved to work with the incredible black Hebridean fibre and figured others also might. Just a few months later I was on a trip to the Swedish island of Gotland where you can buy natural yarn at farm stores right next to where the sheep the fleece is from are grazing and I began to wonder why we weren’t doing more of this in the UK?

I had savings for a house downpayment and decided instead to use that money to have the new clip of Hebridean fibre from Dad’s flock spun into yarn and the very first yarn launched in March of 2016. It was originally intended as a one-off project but by then I was absolutely committed to seeing where else this journey could take me.

Skeins of black, gray and cream yarn.

How do you decide on the blends that you mill?

Our first considerations are fleece that is undervalued or considered “worthless,” including the majority of naturally black or other non-white fleeces such as the tan colour of Castlemilk Moorit sheep. These naturally occurring coloured fleeces have a lower value as they are not commercially viable for dye houses whereas white wool can be dyed in a multitude of different shades. We are incredibly lucky to have 72 different British sheep breeds, each with their own characteristics and potential, it sometimes just takes a leap of faith to show others how good products from these breeds can be.

Additionally, we seek out fleece that is going to waste. Many sheep farmers bury or burn their annual clip as the amount they receive from the British Wool Board sometimes barely covers the cost of fuel to take the fleece to a depot and in extreme cases the shepherd can end up owing the Wool Board money, so our Ram Jam ranges of sport and worsted-weight yarns are all woollen spun from fibre that otherwise wouldn’t have seen a mill. We work closely with a longstanding mill in the heart of Yorkshire who spin both the black and white fleeces and blend the perfect grey gradient.

Other factors for blending, particularly with our worsted-spun range, is how well the main fibre responds to the spinning process. For our Heritage range, the Hebridean fibre is blended with Zwartbles, a similarly dark fleece, to enable a smoother spin and we then blend in a smidge of Exmoor Blueface to produce our Brume range of yarns.

A skein of dark brown yarn.

What do you think sets your yarn apart from that of other brands?

Not only do we spin natural black fleece, but we celebrate it and find uses for it beyond knitting wool, for example in blankets and tweed cloth which is then also used for creating accessories to make British wool available to different audiences, not just those who knit and crochet.

Our founding manifesto in 2015 included producing all our own label products within the UK using traditional processors to support jobs and business and ensure skills are passed on to the next generation. British wool has such a rich heritage and for these highly-skilled jobs and industry to vanish would be a crying shame. It often makes the job a lot harder and production costs much higher, but it’s hugely important to support businesses providing work for locals which in turn helps keep communities together and all employees work in what I know to be a safe environment within a company following employment law.

I have always been transparent about where the fibre is sourced, to where it’s washed, spun and finished, which often means I can tell you the exact journey a single skein has been on to get into your hands from the field the sheep graze to where the skeins were tied off.

At the end of the day Daughter of a Shepherd isn’t just about me, it’s so much more.

A flock of black sheep.

Do you have a favorite sheep breed?

It must be the Hebridean! They’re a small sheep, full of character, very hardy and live outside all year round even their lambs arrive in the open air. The flock my father shepherds are used for conservation grazing so also perform an invaluable job in an entirely natural way.

Their fleece tells the story of the year as they change colour with the sun and grow old with age; the natural black wool they are born with takes on tones of russet, gold, and silver grey. Just magical!

What are the most interesting things you’ve learned running your business?

Oh gosh, there’s been so much — it has been a steep learning curve — but learning how wool is processed within the UK has been fascinating. Going behind the scenes each step of the way and seeing the fleece being washed, to the actual machinery it is spun on, to meeting the incredibly knowledgeable people who have spun it always utterly inspiring.

A skein of dark brown yarn and a piece of lace knitting.

Tell me about how you learned to knit?

Like so many people I was taught to knit and crochet at a young age by my grandma with more advanced techniques and support provided by mum. I remember shopping for dishcloth yarn at the market with Grandma then returning to her house where I’d ferociously knit garter stitch dishcloths until the yarn ran out. Mohair (in the loosest sense of the word) sweaters soon followed along with a memorable batwing jumper.

Following on from this ’80s extravaganza, I put the needles and hooks to one side for many years before picking them up once more around 15 years ago during a long illness and got truly bitten by the bug!

Can you share some of your plans for Indie Untangled?

There’s a special, limited-edition shade of Ram Jam Sport naturally dyed by Julia Billings of Woollenflower who I regularly collaborate with on yarn and tweed pouches, and you will also find a few seasonal bundles along with several surprises.

Many moons ago I was a personal shopper for Harvey Nichols department store so I’m looking forward to booking appointments for Indie Untanglers wishing to discuss project plans or pick out gifts for that tricky to buy for someone.

A brown/black tweed pouch in front of fabric with sheep.

What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?

When launching Daughter of a Shepherd I hadn’t thought beyond my hope that people would buy the yarn – it didn’t occur to me they would then go and knit with it and even wear their makes. When finished objects began to appear knitted and crocheted in our Hebridean yarn I was so overcome as it was the pinnacle of a huge and very emotional project. I still have the same reaction today whenever I see someone wearing a project made in Daughter of a Shepherd yarn and fabric or receive an email telling me all about plans for the yarn order just placed. There’s no feeling like it.

The sleeve and body of a dark brown textured sweater.Tell me the projects that are currently on your needles.

I’m most definitely not a monogamous knitter and currently have three sweaters on the go plus a shawl to finish and several pairs of socks and mittens awaiting their partners!

Work on a forthcoming pattern sample is taking priority, but once finished I’ll return to my Dew Sweater by Hiromi Nagasawa which has the most beautiful cabled-lace shoulder detail and is perfect for the indigo dyed Ram Jam Sport. The Spruce Peak Pullover by Amy Christoffers has been marinating in a project bag for a little too long and I’m keen to get it finished as the Ram Jam Worsted works up into a light but very warm fabric which I’ll need in my drafty studio come winter. Think I’ll have to speed up though as I’d also really love a Brume 4ply sweater – either Viburna by Fabienne Gassmann or an Eyelet Pullover by Orlane Sucche.

Wool sweater, shawl, hat, and mitten weather is my favourite time of year!

Indie Across the Pond Untangling: Garthenor Organic

A label with teal print.

This is the third in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Across the Pond, taking place from March 19-21, 2021.

I featured Garthenor Organic on the blog last year prior to Indie Untangled Everywhere in October. I’m excited that this British yarn company has decided to return for our first international fiber event! I spoke with Jonny King to learn even more about his and his mom Sally’s commitment to organic, British wool.

What did the process of organic certification entail?

It’s quite a lengthy process! For an organic farm like ours, there is a minimum of two years of transition, which lets the livestock and land adapt gradually to a new way of farming. For the yarn production, it’s usually a little quicker, thankfully. There are a few key areas that come under the scope of a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) certification, namely chemical inputs (like dyes and detergents), traceability, working conditions and environmental standards. For each of these, we need to be able to show complete transparency during our annual inspection and occasional unannounced spot inspections, so it’s pretty in-depth. I definitely don’t think we’d be able to keep it up if we didn’t truly believe in the process.

Yarn being milled.

How has your company evolved over 20-plus years?

This is an odd one for me, as I’ve grown up alongside the company – Mum (Sally) often jokes that she brought me up to join in with making yarn! We started with spinning yarn from wool only from our own flock, but we’re now working with 50-60 organic farms around the UK to grow this amazing fibre. As you can imagine, this also means a lot more yarn being made too! We’re still a tiny company though, with just the two of us working full time, and I think that means we can keep that raw connection to the way our yarns are made – without any compromise at all.

A black and white image of a man holding a dark lamb.

A woman leaning on a cane wearing a dark coat and knitted hat.

Are you still facing challenges due to the pandemic? What about Brexit?

Definitely! I think like just about every industry, we’ve had a few setbacks over the last year or so. Not having in-person shows has been so heartbreaking, as this is really where we get to connect with friends and customers, and we really get to tell the story of the fibre. We work with a few small mills here in the UK, and they’ve all faced closures and reduced staffing, so it’s been trickier than ever to keep up with demand!

Shipping has been a challenge, but I’m glad to say this is looking a little more stable now – we’re dispatching orders every day all across the world, and the postal services are doing an amazing job to get all the yarny parcels delivered as quickly as possible.

A sheepdog among a pile of brown and white fleece.

Tell me more about the rare breed that you debuted at Indie Untangled Everywhere last year?

One of our favourite things when introducing a new or single-release yarn is to introduce makers to a fibre they may have never discovered before. For Indie Untangled Everywhere, it was a blend of Manx Loaghtan and Hampshire Down, two gorgeous British breeds, woollen spun into a super soft and squishy yarn. Partnering this one was the pure Manx Loaghtan, and a marl of the two shades (we always love a good marl here!). The flock that grows the Manx Loaghtan fleece was one of our first supplier farms, and it’s that genuine connection the story of the fibre that makes us so proud to do what we do.

Like all our fibre, it was hand sorted by Sally – her experience and knowledge in working with fibre for years is really what sets each yarn apart. She has a knack to understanding how the fibre will be behave, and it guides us to make wool that reflects the landscape, the sheep and the story that surrounds us every day.

A skein of cream-colored yarn that says Dartmoor.

What new products will you be showing at Indie Across the Pond?

We’re going to be re-introducing a special edition version of our newest base, Snowdonia Sock. Spun from pure rare-breed Greyface Dartmoor wool, the texture is so unique and special, and captures what I mentioned about reflecting our landscape. We worked with a farm in Cornwall to source the fibre, and it was spun just a few miles down the road from where it grew. We only spun a very small batch, so it’s definitely not one to miss!

Indie Untangled Everywhere Untangling: Garthenor Organic

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A son and mother.

Jonny King and his mom, Sally, of Garthenor.

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Untangled Everywhere, taking place from October 15-17, 2020.

I first heard of Garthenor Organic and their sheep-y, organic British wool yarn when I attended the Edinburgh Yarn Festival a few years ago. I was excited when they applied to vend at this year’s Rhinebeck Trunk Show (now Indie Untangled Everywhere). Although they won’t be crossing the pond to join us, I’m happy to introduce them to you virtually.

Tell me the story of how Garthenor Organic came to be.

We’d farmed sheep here at Garthenor for a few years, and in 1999 our first batch was sent to a mill that was just five miles down the road. That first batch was simply that Mum wanted some yarn from the sheep! She sold it at local farmers markets, and at the time there was a real drought of proper wool yarns, so it was a bit of an instant hit. Within a couple of years, we were working with a handful of organic farms to source some other breeds and we really just grew from there!

White yarn.

Garthenor Preseli Basalt

Why did you decide to focus on organic products?

Ever since we’ve lived at Garthenor, the farm has been managed to organic principles. We got our certification in the late 1990s, and it felt like the right approach for making yarn too. We worked closely with the local mill to develop the first ever organic standards for wool, so as a result we actually produced the first certified organic wool yarns in the world! More than any certification, it really feels like the right way to do what we do, by treading lightly on the planet and using amazing, renewable fibre from high welfare flocks.

A man holds a black lamb.

Where is your fiber sourced from?

We work directly with farmers to source all the wool, rather than going through brokers. Each of the farms is based in the UK, with the exception of the fleece we get from a single flock on the Falkland Islands – that’s the only wool I don’t collect myself! By sourcing the wool like this, we have a real connection to the flocks that grow it, and we can also be confident of it’s origin, and that animal welfare standards are being met. All of the wool from our own flock also gets spun, though that’s a fairly small percentage overall!

How much yarn does your company produce each year?

Not enough! Last year we spun around 10-12,000kg, and this year we were hoping for more, but mill closures have put us a bit behind. We’re really conscious that this gorgeous fibre is a finite resource each year, so we’re focusing on making amazing yarn that has a story.

A brown, black and white lamb.

A Shetland lamb.

How big is the team at Garthenor and is everyone a crafter?

Just two of us! I think people are often surprised, but it’s just me and Mum. It gets pretty hectic, especially when lambing and yarn shows are in full swing! I’m quite a novice knitter, but Mum is the expert.

Can you talk about some of the business challenges you’ve had to overcome during the pandemic?

Day to day, we’ve managed to cope fairly well. Being on an upland farm in West Wales has meant that isolation is something we’re fairly used to! We’d normally have expected to be exhibiting at a dozen or so yarn shows, and we’re really missing the community aspect of seeing all our friends there. The two mills that spin most of our yarn also closed for a while during lockdown, so there have been some delays behind the scenes.

Orange yarn.

Garthenor Preseli Sunset.

Can you share some of your plans for Indie Untangled Everywhere?

We have a couple of colourways that’ll be launched for Indie Untangled Everywhere, which I’m super excited about. One, in particular is a beautiful rare breed that we haven’t had for ages.

What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?

I really love them all – it’s such a wonderful feeling to see that yarn that we’ve worked so hard to make being loved enough to turn into a FO! I always lean towards the undyed shades myself, and seeing some gorgeous neutral colourwork always warms my heart.